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Real life 'Pac-Man' satellite will clean up space junk

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The Swiss aren't big on littering, and that philosophy apparently applies to space, too. After the nation's EPFL Center for Space Engineering launched its first satellites (the tiny SwissCubes) into orbit, the very next mission planned was "CleanSpace One" to get them out of orbit. For one, the researchers didn't want to add to the reams of existing space garbage threatening other satellites and astronauts at speeds of up to 15,000mph. But mainly, they want to test a practical system for cleaning space junk with relatively small targets. After considering various systems, the EPFL has settled on a "Pac-Man" solution that will trap the satellites with a conical net.

The operation will be tricky, because just finding the 4x4-inch satellites is going to be difficult. As such, the researchers are developing a high dynamic-range camera and image processing system that can spot bright reflections coming off the SwissCubes as they spin in space. Meanwhile, if the net doesn't deploy just so, the cubes could bounce off the cleanup satellite and end up in a worse spot than before.

The team rejected several capture options, including articulated arms with claws and a "tentacle" scheme. It settled on a cone-shaped net that unfolds and closes back down, saying "this system is more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand." After the Clean Space One satellite gobbles up all the cubes, it will de-orbit and burn everything up on the way back down to earth. The team has now passed the prototype phase and hopes to develop the first engineering models, with the aim of launching the space junk collection satellite by 2018.

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